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Adrift in a Hyperculture
A review of "Hyperculture: Culture and Globalization" by Byung-Chul Han
Polity, 106 pages, 2022
If there’s one provocation that solidifies social theorist Byung-Chul Han as the countercultural figure of our time, it’s his praise of boredom.
“If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation” he writes in his seminal text The Burnout Society.
Limits, self-sacrifice, and difference—the themes within Han’s work are a clapback against the dizzying ego overstimulation of contemporary society, where duty and taboo have been replaced with a hedonistic injunction to ‘enjoy.’
Born in South Korea, but based in Germany, Han’s influence within the Anglosphere has yet to be fully realized, mostly due to the slow-drip of English translations of his many books and essays. With the translation of Hyperculture: Culture and Globalization, Han provides a timeless critique of globalized consumer culture.
To understand Han’s work, you need to grasp his critique of what he calls our “achievement society.” First outlined in The Burnout Society, Han describes how the rise of technocapitalism and the destruction of traditional social mores have given rise to a new kind of subjectivity: the self-motivated achievement-subject:
Today’s society is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. It has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories.
What we have been sold as progress and freedom going into the 21st century is simply a new ego-centric form of control.
For Han, the bio-politics of the achievement society are a “violence of positivity” where the absence of limits (or ‘negation’) have given rise to maladies of depression, obsessive-compulsive habits, borderline personalities, and exhaustion.
A meaningful life is barely graspable in an “anything goes” world where tradition, place, and social roles are framed as obstacles to self-actualized personal projects—more often than not fed to us through algorithms reifying our own precarious identities.
As social theorist Jean Baudrillard succinctly puts it, we live in an age with “more and more information, and less and less meaning.”
The identities constructed by the achievement-subject cannot hold, as there is no big Other to define oneself against: ‘anything goes’ means no identity can fully crystalize. Meaning is something bestowed on the individual by the world, not the other way around.
The achievement-subject works quite well as a consumer, however, as the subject is desperately trying to define itself through external commodities.
“Meaning can exist for the narcissistic self only when it somehow catches sight of itself. It wallows in its own shadow everywhere until it drowns—in itself” notes Han.
Against the achievement society, Han has called for an embrace of vita contemplativa—the Ancient philosophical virtue of a contemplative life. This inevitably leads to a call for the reinstatement of life-affirming rituals and taboos—as well as the slowing down of the cultural pace caused by technocapitalism.
Han has utilized this model of the achievement society to skewer many aspects of modern culture including contemporary “pornographic” relationships (The Agony of Eros), the absence of history (The Scent of Time), slick techno aesthetics (Saving Beauty), and the impetus for disclosure (The Transparency Society).
In Hyperculture, originally published in German in 2005, Han looks at cultural place in the face of globalization, particularly the effect of de-limiting information technologies and the economic liberalization of labor and capital across the globe.
The book begins with a rather dismal prediction by British ethnologist Nigel Barley that “fundamental concepts such as culture will cease to exist” in the near future, rendering us all “more or less tourists in Hawaiian shirts.”
The rise of the cosmopolitan is a common theme in discussions of globalization, as we move beyond a sense of national cultural heritage. This is a state of “hyperculture” for Han.
Today, an American can be a fan of French New Wave cinema, play Japanese video games, listen to Korean pop, have a taste for Ethiopian cuisine, and follow the spiritual teachings of ancient Indian yogis.
“Hyperculture does not know the ‘radically Other’ that is the source of timidity or terror,” notes Han.
The “hypercultural tourist” identified by Han is commonly viewed as a progressive development: the breaking down of national boundaries. However, Han argues it is merely the globalized projection of the achievement-subject: “Being a tourist does not necessarily mean being physically on the move. Already at home, the hypercultural tourist is either somewhere else or on the go.”
Han describes the downside of our globalized world as a “de-facticization: of being or the inability to settle in place. The hypercultural tourist is free to be anywhere or anyone, but not in any meaningful sense ever ‘home.’”
“National happiness’, the ‘song’ of the ‘soul’ that creates happiness, is probably unknown to the tourists in Hawaiian shirts.” writes Han.
What’s left in our hypercultural environment is the miserable free-floating subject of technocapitalism, that of Microsoft’s early 2000s slogan “Where do you want to go today?”
No wonder then we have seen a reactionary turn across the globe seeking to re-establish some lost sense of national unity—usually in the form of vulgar, racist ethno-nationalist movements.
Han, a Swiss-German-Korean, is of course no reactionary and wishes to make a case for both multiculturalism and national happiness.
He notes Hegel’s view in his Lectures in the Philosophy of History that enviable Greek civilization was the result of a melting pot, with Hegel criticizing the “superficial and absurd idea that such a beautiful and truly free life can be produced by a process so incomplex as the development of a race keeping within the limits of blood relationship and friendship.”
Heterogeneity (in ethnicity and culture) is a crucial pillar of a flourishing culture, argues Han, but an extra step is required for national happiness—an ‘overcoming’ of heterogeneity which requires a foreign Other upon which to distinguish oneself.
Overcoming difference is the founding myth of a happy national culture. Han calls for a ritualized ignorance of intra-cultural difference through the recognition of inter-cultural Otherness:
Culture has increasingly lost the kind of structure familiar to us from conventional texts or books. There are no stories, no theology, no teleology to give it the appearance of a meaningful homogenous unity. The borders or enclosures that convey a semblance of cultural authenticity or genuineness are dissolving.
What’s required is the ability to view the foreign as Other again, not in a xenophobic sense of ‘lesser’ but merely different. This Otherness can then proceed to a cultural dialogue characterized not by limited “tolerance” or “politeness” but by friendliness.
“Unlike politeness, friendliness acts without rules. Precisely because of this irregularity, it can have far-reaching effects. It produces maximum cohesion with minimum connectedness” he writes.
What we are left with at the end of Hyperculture is some hope that both national happiness and cultural dialogue are possible, through the mutual perception of difference.
Byung-Chul Han once again shows he is willing to speak some difficult truths in order to counteract the harms of achievement society. His work deserves greater attention in the Anglosphere for being a true countercultural force in reestablishing meaning, despite increasingly nihilistic disintegration.